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Saturday, October 24, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Dave Nichols: Building hunting memories as satisfying as harvesting game

A stuffed toy skunk protects the author’s bunk from any future possible varmint intruder.  (Dave Nichols / The Spokesman-Review)
A stuffed toy skunk protects the author’s bunk from any future possible varmint intruder. (Dave Nichols / The Spokesman-Review)

Despite looking the part with my “Grizzly Adams” beard, I’m not much of an outdoorsman, if I’m being honest.

Hiking from Point A to Point B – and then back again – has never been my thing, especially if hills are involved. I understand the communing with nature part and the fitness benefits, but I am unfortunately sedentary by nature.

I rode bikes a lot as a kid, but a particularly gnarly crash when I was 14 left my right wrist so mangled I missed the entire football season, and I’ve never overcome the fear of returning to the saddle since.

I’m a good swimmer, but don’t like boats, so I’m not a paddler either. I like fishing enough, but it can be complicated and messy, and there’s that whole fear of boats thing again.

But I am a hunter – especially for deer. And a good one, at that.

I have carried a rifle into the woods since I passed my Pop’s hunter safety test when I was 12 years old. In 40-plus years, I’ve had my share of successful harvests on a variety of species – some more tasty than others.

But for me, give me a good old-fashioned deer hunt and I’m the happiest guy around.

It’s not the killing that drives me. If I never shoot another deer in my life, I wouldn’t complain. Again though, being honest, I can’t discount the singular rush one gets with a successful shot. And I do really enjoy a mid-rare venison steak with a glass of Cabernet or a hearty venison stew.

But it’s the entire experience – from the initial planning to the countless hours scouting to the campfire camaraderie to bringing the quarry to table. Heck, I even really enjoy the process of field dressing and butchering.

One doesn’t hunt for four decades with the same small group of family and friends without collecting more stories than successful harvests, regardless how good a hunter one may be. Here, then, is a small sample of my memories that have been appropriately sanitized in order to share in a public venue.

Dirty drawers

I was 8 the first time I accompanied my Pop into the woods on a real hunt in northern Virginia, where we’re from. Up at 4:45 a.m., he drank coffee while I had some instant oatmeal to get going. We tromped away from camp on an old logging road for what felt like 10 miles, but in reality was just several hundred yards, in the pitch black except for the dim light of our two AA cell flashlights.

My Pop carried my grandfather’s Marlin Model 336 lever-action .35 Remington with a 2.5 power scope – which I still carry, now with modern ballistics and upgraded optics.

We stepped off the logging road and set up at the base of a tree that gave a good view of a draw and a game trail, my Pop with his back against the tree and me nuzzled up next to him for warmth. I immediately fell asleep in the predawn darkness until well after sunlight, when my Pop shifted to relieve his aching back.

After a couple of hours of me squirming, Pop decided we needed to get our blood moving again and we made it back to the trail. I was cold, bored and needed the bathroom, but he wanted to check out a watering hole for sign before we headed back to camp.

We hadn’t gone 20 yards when the world exploded – or so it felt like – when that trusty .35 went off 2 feet above my head without warning. While I was looking down and shuffling my feet, Pop was scanning the trail 100 yards ahead and sent a round toward what he said was the third of four deer that crossed in front of us.

I never saw them, obviously.

Unfortunately, the gun wasn’t the only thing that exploded. In the shock of the percussion, what I had been holding back in my bowels was thusly released, followed by tears of embarrassment.

Pop ran up the trail to mark the blood sign, then hustled me back to camp to clean up. Once that was out of the way, we hoofed it back out to follow the blood trail until we found the nice four-point whitetail (a 2x2 in western parlance) tucked in next to a fallen tree about 40 yards off the trail.

I’ve never eaten oatmeal before hunting again.

Bare essentials

One occasion in my early 20s we had a particularly warm afternoon, mid-60s in mid-November, so I decided to make a day of still hunting since most deer will bed down in that type of midday heat.

After a few hours of slowly hiking with my day pack on my back and the .35 slung across my chest, I was overheated and my feet were barking. I was at the far end of the property and decided to take a rest at the base of a shady tree.

I was dripping with sweat, soaked to the bone, so I stripped down to my shorts – socks and all – and hung my wet clothing in the tree next to me in hopes of drying out before hiking back to camp.

I sat bare-chested and barefoot, with my blaze orange cap on my head and rifle in my lap for appearance sake.

I awoke from a short nap to see a six-point buck not 15 yards from me in some briars.

He knew I was there. He’d lift his head to smell my sweat in the air – but he wasn’t spooked since I had been, you know, asleep. He was so close I didn’t dare move for the rifle or he’d be off without a shot.

After several minutes of stealth, the buck slowly made his way behind a tree, which allowed me in one motion to shoulder the .35.

The wily buck’s head came out from the other side, then he stopped. All I could see was his antlers on one side and tail on the other. There was no shot to be had.

After a moment, he turned away and his entire body was obscured by the tree. I could hear him walking away, but couldn’t see him. He was going to slip away!

Before he disappeared for good, though, he turned to go back from whence he came. I saw the head, then a step and he showed his shoulder. One more step provided the breadbasket and – POW!

I worked up a second sweat field dressing then hiked back to camp in my shorts and blaze orange vest to get the pickup truck – and a cold beverage.

Skunk in the bunk

Our hunting camp was on the site of an old farm that was destroyed by fire in the 40s. The only thing left standing was a chicken coop – three walls and a tin roof.

Over the years, improvements were made, permanent bunks added, and it was a small but cozy shelter for our crew. Eventually, we expanded the shelter into a legitimate cabin, but before that is was, well, rustic is a poetic way to describe it.

One night, as my younger brother and I lay sleeping, I was woken up by something at the end of my bunk. On cold nights, it was common for a field mouse, chipmunk or squirrel to seek indoor shelter.

But this was not a squirrel, as I could feel little claws pulling at the fabric of my sleeping bag.

“Sam,” I half-whispered to my brother, with no answer. “Sam,” I said again, a little louder. “There’s something in my bunk.”

My brother, across the room in his mummy bag, finally stirred and was able to locate his flashlight. After blinding me with it, the light finally illuminated my new bunkmate.

“It’s a … skunk!” he screamed.

In one fell swoop, I leapt from the bunk, threw the sleeping bag on top of the offender and bounded for the cabin door as Sam struggled to get out of his rack.

He eventually joined me, both of us barefoot and in our skivvies in 2 inches of fresh snow.

After 20 minutes or so we were satisfied the varmint had escaped the cabin through the hole it had entered. Back inside, we stoked the fire and warmed up our numbed feet.

But the skunk continued to scratch at the back of the cabin and rustled around a couple of bags of garbage that we failed to secure.

After an hour of that skunk keeping us up, and assured in our minds it had rabies, I turned to my brother and said, “I’m not going to be terrorized by a … skunk.” I got my shotgun and with Sam acting as spotter we went out and dispatched the varmint, whereupon it had it’s last revenge on us by releasing every ounce of spray in its miserable body.

After a restless night’s sleep (on a top bunk), we gave the vanquished varmint a proper burial and filled the hole at the back of the cabin it made to get in.

A stuffed toy skunk now resides at the foot of my bunk to ward off evil trespassers.

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